I was that very strange and pivotal age of eleven when my parents moved from the Berkshires to the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts. It was not a happy move. Our family had gone bankrupt, the home-grown real estate business my parents owned went belly-up, and with my father’s progressively more complicated rare disease wracking up bills upon bills, we made the decision to move closer to family about an hour east.

We were supposed to move to Whatley, MA, a sleepy, wooded town with a big public school system where my beloved aunt, uncle, and cousins lived. But, at the very, very last minute, the house we were intended to rent fell through. A week before Christmas.

That meant we stayed a Christmas in someone else’s house and we had no home. It was a strange holiday, full of watching Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles films, making homemade ornaments, and enduring cold nights wondering what was going to happen. It was the middle of the school year, and we had to scramble to find somewhere else to live, and the only place available for our family of four was in Hatfield, a neighboring town to Whatley which had a very small school system serving just their 3,000 residents.

One of the “big houses” on Hatfield’s main street.
John Phelan

I’ll write more about what it meant to spend those next seven years in Hatfield at some point, but this is about haunted houses. And yes. We moved into a haunted house.

My mother, always an aesthete at heart and a lover of all things antique, was buzzing at the idea of this place, the first glow of happiness we’d seen in a long time. To say that the intervening months had taken their toll on all of us was something of an understatement. My parents looked changed, to me; thinner, more drawn, shadows on their faces that hadn’t been there in the decade of plenty we’d had leading up to this fall. In some ways, they felt like strangers. And I felt like a stranger in my own body — I was eleven, but I looked like I was sixteen. I haven’t grown an inch since then. I was trying to hold on to the last vestiges of my childhood while exploring what it meant to become a teenager.

And I was given a haunted house. Granted, there are plenty of candidates in Hatfield. Downtown is a practical postcard of jeweled little Victorians. But we weren’t on the main throughway (if you can call it that in a town with no stoplights). We were a little left of center, you might say.

Keep in mind, I was the child of real estate agents. My formative years were spent meandering houses and buildings that had real character. I grew up in Pittsfield and Dalton, MA, where there’s a beautiful proliferation of Château style and Romanesque houses which still get me excited to this day (I was over the moon when I saw the house they used in Knives Out, which was also filmed in my home state). So being able to live in one of these houses felt a bit surreal.

Ventfort Hall in Lenox – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by kke227 via Flickr

From the outside, it wasn’t exactly much to look at. And as Victorian style houses went, it was not particularly fancy or particularly large (maybe about 2500 sq ft). It was a Colonial with Victorian flourishes, perhaps a small rather dumpy Queen Anne, quite common in that part of the world but so very unusual to my young eyes.

The house, we later learned, was in a family dispute. It was once a center of gatherings and fit to bursting with life. But when we lived there it sided with asbestos in green and grey and had that “slowly crumbling into the landscape” look. It was massive, sprawling, from the wraparound porch to the elongated kitchen and garage area it was hard to entirely make sense of it. From the outside, you could see that no two windows were really the same, and there were hints of hidden rooms and mismatched corners.

It was the biggest house we had ever lived in. Coming from a 1960s ranch-style house, I had no real idea what to expect. But from the moment we opened the front doors, the old oil heat of the place rising around me, I felt absolutely transformed.

Pretty close to what the house looked like, but imagine with green and black and white siding — it’s since been replaced. By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10855742

The kitchen, where we entered the house (from the back because the front porch/front door was full of unwanted family dispute junk), had nine doors. Nine. The door to the outside, the door to the bathroom, the door to the back stairs (servant stairs), the door to the pantry, the door to the dining room, the door to the basement, the door to the parlor, and two closet doors. You felt as if you were beginning some adventure in that kitchen. It wasn’t very big, but it was very square and very white and clearly a later addition to the house — it was a foot or so lower than the parlor and the dining room.

My favorite part about the kitchen was the pantry. It was constantly infested with moths, and we had to put all our flour and grain in plastic bags to keep it from being nibbled, but it had a secret passage door. Like a very simple dumbwaiter, I suppose, if you reached in you’d end up in the built-in china cabinet on the other side of the dining room wall.

I will tell you: if the kitchen of nine doors hadn’t been enough, the fact that there were secret passages from the pantry to the dining room absolutely sold this house on me 100%. Keep in mind, I was a child of Narnia. Just two years before moving away, I remember sitting on the sloping back hills of my house in the Berkshires, wishing with every fiber of my being that I would end up in Narnia.

And the house’s wonders didn’t stop there. Every room was covered in gleaming hardwood. There were multiple fireplaces with ornate carved wood, mottled old mirrors, and cubbyholes everywhere. Huge pocket doors were neverending amusement, letting my sister and I cloister ourselves away and have adventures in our imaginations. The windows soaked the living room and front entry with bright light, and the front staircase, oh… It was a thing of wonder. Scrollwork, stained glass, sculpted carpentry, all swirling together to beckon you upward, upstairs, where more wonders awaited.

I love old staircases. CC BY-NC 2.0 – by Maryade via Flickr

And await they did.

There were more rooms on the second floor than we could live in, so we only took four: a bedroom each for my sister and myself, a bedroom for my parents, and a study. Oddly enough, I can’t bring to mind the office or my parents’ room, but I can remember mine. It was huge. As a corner of the house it had windows on two sides, and wide, creaky floors. My furniture seemed dwarfed in that room, the warmth barely retained by virtue of a huge old antique carpet my mom had.

There was one thing about that room, though. The wide door opened to the very beginning of the hall, where the glorious landing was at the top of the stairs. I can’t say I can explain it, to this day, but at night it sounded like someone was walking up those stairs, up and down, as the house shuddered against the winter wind. I would lie awake, shivering and terrified, expecting a ghost to appear in front of me at any moment. But even though I could feel it, the prickling on my skin and the anticipation rising in my chest, I never saw anything.

My sister and I shared that room for the better part of the winter, not just because we played imagination games far into the night and that made me feel braver, but because it was so damned cold.

All those wide, creaking floors meant that the house was not exactly well insulated. And poised as it was, on the edge of a long field, the wind absolutely ravaged the house any chance it got. Add to that the fact that we had more snow than we’d seen in a decade, well, it made for more exploring.

We didn’t go into the forbidden downstairs rooms; I remember peeking in to see piles of old furniture. But at the end of that second-floor hallway there was one more door, and that door went up a pair of very narrow stairs that turned a corner and…

Everything that the family had owned was up there in that attic. It was a time capsule from the late 1900s to the 1950s. There were racks of clothes, furniture piled high with old Life magazines, boxes full of jewelry, paintings, photo albums, and every manner of precious items you could imagine. Not to mention all the bottled and baubles and strange leavings. All crumbling, all covered in dust and the detritus of hundreds of bats and mice that now nestled among the moldering books and histories.

Photo by Andrew Petrischev on Unsplash

Every time my sister and I went up there it felt both completely magical and absolutely naughty. My heart would pound as I took in the strange shapes of the dresses and hats, the weird outlines of old curtains and furniture slanted against the single window. Each time we snuck up to the attic we found something new, some new story to breathlessly tell new house guests who came to visit and gape in wonder at this strange, lovely place.

I fell in love with history in the house on King Street, as I had never fallen in love before. I was both enamored of the house and terrified of it: of its secrets, of its beauty, of its state of decay. I wanted to save it. It seemed such a tragedy that the house was slowly folding in on itself; no wonder no one else had wanted to rent it. Heating and cooling alone were almost the cost of our rent. And my father, sick with a rare immune disease and practically allergic to the cold, suffered all winter long and well into that cold spring.

We were only there one year, perhaps not even. But so much of who I was developed in those old hallways and rafters. I became more set in clay. I had no friends save for my sister, and everything in my life seemed to have fallen apart. Except the house, even though it was, actually, falling apart. It felt like real magic I could cling onto as I spent the last drops of innocence before my teenage years. A last gasp of magic before the doors to Narnia closed for good; or, at least until started making my own Narnia. Which I did. In that very house, I picked up my first spiralbound notebook and started to write my very first book.

To this day I think of houses as people (I think of cities that way, too, but that’s another post for another day). I can’t explain it better than that. I follow a number of old home groups on Facebook, like For the Love of Old Houses, and dream of a day that I, too, can have a haunted house. My heart aches when I see homes left to fall to pieces just as it soars when I see one lovingly kept. Each home is unique, the patterns and wallpapers and sprawling ceilings the fingerprint of someone long gone. Their stately sides and angles tell their own story of a time that we can almost touch, but not quite hold. That is a kind of magic, I think.

I’m not afraid of those house spirits, not anymore. My home is not an old home, but I fell in love with it because it was built with similar care: wood floors, big windows, and a lovely, open, inviting staircase. At this point in my life, I can’t see myself as the mistress of a sweeping, half-crumbling estate.

But someday, maybe someday, a haunted house might choose me again… and we’ll see what lessons it has in store for me, then.

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